Joanne Major, Principal of Major Family Law, Newcastle and Northumberland’s best divorce and children specialist solicitors, Ponteland states in the Accent Magazine a woman sat in my office the other day and looked at me with absolute disbelief when I advised her that she was not, as she had believed, entitled to half of her estranged partner’s estate.
“But we’ve been together for over 20 years”, she told me. “That makes me his common law wife, doesn’t it? I think I read somewhere that once you’ve lived together for 12 years, you become common law husband and wife”.In this internet and Google led age, it remains surprisingly common for people to believe that English law has a recognised legal status of common law spouse. Let me assure you, once again, that there is no such thing.

This lady, in her mid 40’s, had met her partner (a recent divorcee) when she was a young PA in the company where he worked. They moved in together but he was resistant to suggestions of marriage, citing how it had destroyed his relationship with his former wife. Keen not to rock the emotional boat, my client acquiesced, reasoning that she did not need a ring on her finger to prove how much they loved each other.

The house in which they lived was owned by her partner and remained in his sole name throughout the relationship. When she became pregnant, they agreed that she would give up work and stay at home to raise their family, with the intention of having more children. For the remainder of their relationship, my client’s partner was the sole bread earner while my client raised their two children.

As the last child made plans to move to London for a new job, my client’s partner announced the relationship was over and that he had found someone else. Devastated, my client believed that she was at least entitled to a share in the house they’d shared, and some form of financial support for having sacrificed her own career to raised their family. You have no doubt heard similar stories.

I had to advise her that, despite effectively living as man and wife on a day to day business, because they had never legally married, she was not protected by the same legislation as married couples. The wide ranging powers of the Courts within divorce proceedings to afford financial provision for spouses do not apply to cohabitees. Conversely, disputes are decided according to the inflexible principles of property and trust law, which can often result in seemingly unfair outcomes and disproportionate expense.

Although too late for this client, cohabiting couples can protect their financial futures by drawing up a Living Together Agreement, also known as a Cohabitation Agreement. The document can be drawn up at any time during the relationship and can document how financial provision is to be made both during and after the relationship. Although not legally binding in the strictest contractual sense, the existence of an agreement will be highly persuasive in how a court considers any later dispute and is likely to be given significant weight as evidence of joint intentions.

Many people are unaware of the existence of such a document, and others think it may make them look money grabbing, but unless and until the law is changed to put cohabitees on an equal footing with married couples, it is the only insurance policy either of you will have.

Joanne Major is the Principal at Major Family Law, the Divorce and Family Law Specialists, 12 West Road, Ponteland, Newcastle upon Tyne. T: 01661 82 45 82 Twitter: @majorfamilylaw